"Dry Creek: The Mother Lode of Zinfandel" - Appellation America, August 11, 2006

Excerpted from AppellationAmerica.com, August 11, 2006
© Copyright 2006 Appelation America

Dry Creek Valley: The Mother Lode of Zinfandel
by Thom Elkjer

"I think people recognize that we have enough Syrah in Dry Creek Valley now. As for the future, there's just no way Zinfandel will ever be eclipsed here."
- Doug Nalle

Doug Nalle has been making wine in Dry Creek Valley for more than 20 years. After starting in the wine business as a cellar rat in 1973, he earned a Masters in enology from UC Davis in 1979 and dedicated himself to winemaking. He launched his own label in the mid-1980s, then became founding winemaker at Quivira estate winery on West Dry Creek Road. Today Nalle concentrates on Nalle Winery, a family operation that he shares with his wife, Lee, and their son (and assistant winemaker), Andrew. Lee's family also grows grapes in Dry Creek Valley that go into Nalle wines.

You can easily identify Nalle wines in stores (or on the next table at a restaurant) because of the "family crest" with the Latin motto vinum sapientiam tibi dat - "wine gives you wisdom." On the back label? Wry wine cartoons, also in an archaic wood-cut style. For all his humor, Nalle is a serious observer of the wine scene and often one of the first to note when the pendulum has swung too far in any direction. He calls himself a "contrarian" but it might be more accurate to call him a bellwether.

Thom Elkjer (TE): How have Dry Creek Valley's vineyards changed over the past couple of decades, and what trends do you see in the wine?

Doug Nalle (DN): The grape-growing has changed a lot: plant material, trellising and irrigation are all changing. We've gotten away from AXR [a rootstock susceptible to the vine killing phylloxera louse], and that is obviously not a bad thing. Instead of going back to St. George rootstock - which has some limitations but which I think worked really well for Zinfandel - we've gone to a range of more sophisticated rootstocks that you can choose based on what you want to accomplish. Vertical shoot positioning has taken over the trellises. Petiole analysis and tensiometers are used routinely to decide when to fertilize, when to water, and so on.

Basically, the viticulture has become way more sophisticated. And because our plant material is so clean, we have no viruses in the vineyards anymore. If you take all these factors together, what we have done is force the grapes up the brix curve.

TE: So diseases and other factors that used to provide a brake on the vines are not there now, and new practices are pushing the grapes to ripen differently than in the past?

DN: In my view - remember, I'm a contrarian - growers have made the plants too happy. Come Labor Day, they're still just crankin' away. But they're already at 23.5 brix [a level that once arrived much later and signified full ripeness] and there's no flavor yet. That's something you never saw 20 years ago. At 23.5 brix, you were either picking or picking pretty soon.

Because of my grape sources, I have had the opportunity to sample grapes from 50-year-old dry-farmed vines that are 20 feet away from a high-tech new vineyard. Same Zinfandel, but you could not find grapes that taste more different, even though the so-called terroir is the same. The two vineyards are practically side by side, and they taste like they're 100 miles apart.

TE: This has to be changing the wine.

DN: It is. These new vineyards can force the hand of the winemaker because the ideal flavor profile comes at a higher sugar - ergo higher alcohol.

TE: What about the sense of place that has always made Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc from Dry Creek so wonderful?

DN: The best Zins I've had in Dry Creek were field blends, farmed in the old way. New viticultural approaches and wines that are blended after fermentation just can't match the same flavor profile. So in that sense, for someone with a sense of history, the new approaches take away from the provenance of Dry Creek.

It's not just Zinfandel, and it's not just Dry Creek, either. You can put a glass of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon in front of me these days, and I might not be able to tell if it's from Napa, and I might not even be able to tell it's Cabernet. This is happening all over California. Once you've gone beyond a grape variety's peak flavor profile, where are you going? What are you doing?

I understand that this makes me sound like an old fogey, because people vote with their dollars for high-pH, low-acid, fairly alcoholic red wines and that provides a great incentive for wineries to keep making them. Perhaps critics also play a role by praising these wines, which leads some winemakers to make them.

To bring this back to Dry Creek, when I taste Zin and Sauvignon Blanc from some wineries in the region, I'm not sure I'm tasting a varietal wine anymore, and sometimes I don't feel that I'm tasting Dry Creek either.

Fortunately, I'm optimistic that the pendulum will swing back the other way and people will again want balanced wines that reflect a place they know and love. I believe you'll see this more and more in the next ten years.

TE: What would you say are the chief distinguishing factors in Dry Creek Valley's geology and climate as far as growing wine grapes is concerned?

DN: I draw the valley into a quadrant, divided east and west and then again north and south. But these parts of the valley are less and less distinct in the wine itself because winemaking choices today can make an overwhelming difference.

If someone puts 25% of another grape into a Zinfandel, which is allowed under labeling laws, that's going to make a very strong impression on the wine. If someone uses 100% new oak instead of four-year-old oak, they've just added layers of flavor, texture and mouthfeel to the wine that the other wine will never have.

Fifty years ago, most of the winemaking in Dry Creek was similar. Now it's not. The flavor profiles are so diverse at this point that it's hard to pin one to the appellation.

TE: The appellation designation still has meaning, however. Take the 2003 vintage, which was really hot and produced some wines that the winemakers in our Dry Creek Valley Appellation Discovery Program Tasting said were not that representative of the region. All the winemakers on the tasting panel made similar comments, and that suggests to me that they do have some sense of what the appellation should taste like for Zinfandel.

DN: I was on that panel, and I have a sense of what the valley's Zin used to taste like. I'm just saying that it's getting harder to identify that in any particular wine. You really need to get 40 wines together, as we had at that Discovery Tasting, to still have confidence in identifying a unifying quality.

TE: Some vintners in Dry Creek Valley say that different parts of the valley produce distinctly different flavor profiles in the fruit. Can you give us a rough guide to how that works?

DN: The west side of the valley gets most of its sun in the morning, and the fruit tends to be spicier, perhaps a little blacker in terms of the fruit profile, and have a more singular character. The east side of the valley tends to get an abundance of afternoon sun, and those wines naturally are fleshier, sappier wines with more red fruit flavor. But the plot thickens when you add in Petite Sirah or Carignane, to name two [other grapes commonly blended into Zinfandel].

TE: What factors make Dry Creek Valley a great place for Zinfandel and for Sauvignon Blanc, the two grapes it's best known for?

DN: Zinfandel needs plenty of warmth to give you its wonderful ripe strawberry preserve and raspberry-cherry character. If you put it in an area that's too warm, however, it respires its acid too quickly and you don't get that zip in the finish. Of course, winemakers can add acid [during the winemaking process], but that's never quite as good as having the grape get it naturally.

So you want warm-to-hot days, and plenty of them, along with cool nights that preserve the natural acidity. If you go further inland or further south [in California], the Zin can get cooked in comparison to what we have.

TE: In other words, Zinfandel likes a wide diurnal range between daytime highs and nighttime lows.

DN: That's correct, and Dry Creek is just ideally positioned in that regard. We're in a great place for Zinfandel.

TE: What about Sauvignon Blanc?

DN: It also likes a wide diurnal range to keep some edgy acidity in the fresh fruit. Other places also grow real nice Sauvignon Blanc, and I get my fruit from Russian River. But if I were making a straight Sauvignon, rather than blending in as much Semillon and Chardonnay as I do, I'd want to get my Sauvignon Blanc in Dry Creek.

TE: Grady Wann, who you recruited to take over as winemaker when you left Quivira, recently told me that as far as he knew, very few wineries were increasing their Zinfandel plantings in Dry Creek Valley - almost all the new plantings are Syrah or Cabernet instead. Do you see a similar trend, and if so, what does it portend for Dry Creek's reputation as a classic Zin region?

DN: Grady's observation sounds accurate to me, but I'm going to guess that people are already swinging back to Zin. Just about the time everyone wakes up to some kind of planting trend, it's already changing. I just saw a little five-acre Barbera vineyard pulled out for [replanting to] Zinfandel. I think people recognize that we have enough Syrah in Dry Creek now. As for the future, there's just no way Zin will ever be eclipsed here. This is the mother lode of Zinfandel.

TE: If you were going to UC Davis now, rather than in the 1970s, what would you be learning that you didn't learn then?

DN: There would be much more emphasis on microbiology and genetics. When I was there, people were just getting confident talking about [the chemistry of] malolactic [fermentation]. I did research to develop an inexpensive technology for quantitative measures of malic acid, because only the largest wineries had full laboratories. Now almost everyone has access to affordable, computer-driven lab technology.

Back then, we were still nailing down some of the basic things people take for granted today. It was a really great experience for me, especially because I'd already worked in a winery so I knew which end of the hose hooked up to the pump.

TE: Sonoma County appears determined to follow Lodi and Mendocino in forming a wine commission to tax winegrowers in order to generate more money for marketing the county's wine and wine grapes. What's your position on the commission, and what marketing messages do you think Sonoma needs to emphasize to wine consumers?

DN: I'm not a grower so I didn't get to vote about it. But as a vintner, I'll tell you that if you don't market your region, you actually fall behind because everybody else is marketing their regions.

TE: Lodi, for example, has dramatically improved its standing in the public eye thanks to its commission.

DN: That doesn't necessarily improve the grapes.

TE: No, it doesn't. As it turns out, though, I think that Lodi has improved its grapes due to its improved reputation. For one thing, the growers can't get away with lousy fruit when they have the bright light of media exposure on them. Plus they're getting more money for their fruit so they can improve their viticulture. It's a virtuous cycle in the case of Lodi.

DN: Good points. So just imagine what Sonoma could do if we really did market the county. With the exception of Cabernet Sauvignon, and perhaps Cabernet Franc, I believe that Sonoma County consistently, year in and year out, grows the best fruit in the state. Look at the diversity we have, from Cloverdale down to Carneros, over to Sonoma Coast. Fabulous vineyards and fabulous fruit everywhere you look, and with so many different grape varieties. This has been going on a long, long time. If you read "The Judgment of Paris," about the 1976 blind tasting in France where Chateau Montelena [Chardonnay] beat the French white burgundies, you find out that the winery may be in Napa, but 87% of the grapes in the winning wine came from Alexander Valley in Sonoma. Louis M. Martini Winery is also in Napa, but you could argue that its most famous wines came from the Monte Rosso Vineyard, which is in Sonoma County. Other examples are the Sangiacomo family in Carneros and the Rochioli family in the Russian River Valley, who have been growing outstanding fruit for decades.

TE: The pressure to create more appellations and sub-appellations seems to keep growing, not just in California but across the continent. What's behind the trend, and do you think it will continue?

DN: With the explosion of new wineries and vineyard acreage, it seems to me to be as much a marketing phenomenon as a discernable taste difference. There ought to be a test period of more than a few vintages - maybe as many as 20 - to determine if a growing area is distinctive and worthy of recognition as its own appellation.

But there's a lot of wine out there that needs to be sold. The good news is there are many more people drinking wine these days. The not-so-good news is that there is also a lot of marketing "noise" that goes along with it.

TE: There are not that many winemakers whose red wine line-up consists of Zinfandel and Pinot Noir - and I doubt there's anyone else making both wines under 14% alcohol as you did with your current releases from 2004. How do you explain these anomalies in your winemaking compared to the dominant trends?

DN: First of all, we're sourcing from old vineyards with a couple of exceptions - and with those two young vineyards we cut off half the crop to make sure we get full expression. With the older vineyards we don't need to go to 26 brix to get full flavor. We double-sort [the fruit just before crushing] and eliminate a lot of the raisins [dried grapes which have high ratios of sugar to water]. We ferment with open tops, in thin-stave barrels, in our high-humidity above-ground cave. When you do all those things, you get a complete wine without as much alcohol.

TE: Nalle Winery has both a horseshoe pitch and a pètanque court. One's "all-American" and one's "tres Francais". This looks like your Zin/Pinot paradox all over again, but with projectiles.

DN: My wife and I like Europe and spend some time in France, and we think pètanque is a cool game! I like horseshoes too, and if you think about it, most of a horseshoe area is just empty space you throw the horseshoes over, so we put the pètanque court right there and got a kind of two-for-one deal.

TE: American ingenuity meets French sophistication. Plus with both games, you can play with one hand while the other hand is holding a glass of wine.

DN: Or a beer.